The Seven Myths of Forgiveness

By Andy Smith

At least eighty percent of our pastoral care sessions require educating people on the subject of granting forgiveness. And it feels like eighty percent of those demand that we debunk the popular perceptions about forgiveness. I refer to these popular perceptions as myths. And they are popular. But just because everybody’s doing it, doesn’t make it right. Mom used to say, “If everybody was jumping off a cliff, would you join them?” In theory . . . no. In reality . . . most do.

These myths work because they feel right and that is the problem. Our forgiveness gets regulated by feelings. I understand many of the reasons, but understanding is not synonymous with acceptance. Some rewiring needs to be done. Our thinking needs to be recalibrated to better understand and actualize biblical, spiritual, and relational principles.

Wisdom can come from a process of failure or from a process of prayer. Let’s go for the latter.

“Father, You are the Source of wisdom. All wisdom. I pray, in Jesus’ name, that You would inject Your wisdom into my mind and my heart. Remove faulty thinking and replace it with divine understanding. Give me the mind of Christ so that I can forgive as You forgive. Amen.”

They Need To Ask Me To Forgive Them

People withhold the forgiveness that they need to give because of pride. Here’s the mantra: “I’m not taking the first step. They hurt me. I will forgive them when they ask me. They haven’t asked me yet, so they must not want it yet.” Those words drip with pride. The problem is that the need is not in them, it is in you. If you have been offended, then you need to forgive. Forgiveness is about you.

Did Jesus wait? Did He see more value in waiting for people to come to the foot of the cross to apologize or did He see more value in granting forgiveness to an angry mob and the vindictive priests who would never ask for it? Maybe the issue with this is time. Jesus knew He didn’t have much left. We think we have years by the score. As usual, He was clear and we are clouded.

Offer unrestrained forgiveness. It is your gift to give.

I Don’t Need To Forgive God

“Why would I need to forgive God? He is a good God and would never do anything to hurt me.”

Well, yes and no.

He is certainly a good God, but He will hurt you. And I don’t mean He goes out for a coffee and lets Satan hurt you while He’s out of the office. I mean God authors the situation. It is by His hand and He is in control. He has a strong track record in this event that is worth noting. The event is personal growth and there is no one better at making it happen in our lives than God.

In a previous chapter I mentioned Joseph, Job, Mary, Paul, and Jesus Himself. Pages could be written marking the path of God’s will in the lives of these people. I will just lift two from the pages of Scripture.

Job suffered a depth of loss that is irreconcilable. The money, the houses, and the camels were soulless commodities that could come and go. His children were not. Many Christians praise the Lord when the account of Job 42:15 is read. They rejoice at the blessing of having the three most beautiful daughters in the land. My tongue is usually silent.

I have a beautiful daughter and I pray for her every day, just like Job prayed every day for his kids. I don’t know how she could be any cuter, but if God offered two daughters more beautiful than Emma, given the requirement that Emma would have to die, I would flatly refuse His generosity. How do you replace a loved one? Job received a double blessing of everything, but he still walked around gravestones that carried his name.

We rejoice at the account of Job 42:12:

So the LORD blessed the latter end of Job more than his beginning: for he had fourteen thousand sheep, and six thousand camels, and a thousand yoke of oxen, and a thousand she asses (KJV).

Intellectual integrity requires that we give as much credence to the message of verse 11 as we do to verse 12:

Then came there unto him all his brethren, and all his sisters, and all they that had been of his acquaintance before, and did eat bread with him in his house: and they bemoaned him, and comforted him over all the evil that the LORD had brought upon him (Job 42:12 KJV-bold type mine).

Job was a lot like us; he had some self-righteous issues. We’ll be a lot like him; feeling some pain in the process of growth.

Jesus reinforced this theme within His inaugural sermon, “[The Father] makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:45 NKJV).

As humans, we define what is “good” or “bad” by the level of pain it brings. God doesn’t.

When my pastor was in flight school, he had a boil on his knee. He tried to overlook the pain, but it simply became too great. The navy doctor cut the skin, lanced the boil, and drained the fluid. The process was painful. As the doctor was packing the wound, Lieutenant Wright commented that he was glad that was over.

“Over?” the doctor responded. “We’re just getting started.”

Two large corpsmen entered the room and stood at his side. The young lieutenant wondered why they were there. In a moment or two he found out.

The doctor began to press and push against the wound. Bro. Wright came off the table and was quickly returned to a horizontal position thus the reason for the two men. The pain was excruciating. It lasted far longer than desired, but the core had to come out.

The doctor was doing what the doctor had to do in order to bring the healing that was needed. When the procedure was completed, Lieutenant Wright wiped the sweat from his face.

Almost thirty years later he related the story, “The pain of removing the boil was so intense that I would have chosen to live with the daily pain of keeping the boil.”

That sounds fine for the short term, but it is really bad for the long haul. Keeping the boil could have introduced infection and required far more serious procedures, including the possible removal of his leg. Is that worth it? We often think so, but God certainly doesn’t. Remember, He is the Great Physician and He will not require what we are not able to handle. He will never order a surgery if He knows there is the probability that we will not survive the process. If a human doctor would be so conscientious, can’t you believe that our heavenly Father would far exceed that level of care?

God is all powerful and He is good. He deserves all the credit. All the credit. Maybe another way to put that is that He deserves credit for all things; the sun and the rain. There is an older Christian song that says, “If You’re not Lord of everything, then You’re not Lord at all!” He is Lord of everything and it is this very quality which enables Him to bring eternal good out of temporal evil. When you begin to trust Him, you will begin to forgive Him.

I’m Supposed To Feel Like It

I don’t keep scientific stats on this stuff, but I’d venture to say that we hear this myth five times more than any other. You don’t have to feel it. Forgiveness is a decision empowered by the Spirit of God. It is not an emotional act, but a spiritual one. Quick question .. . do you think Jesus felt like speaking forgiveness while His blood soaked the rough timber of a cross? He was God, but He was man as well. It was a spiritual act. Feelings had to be unplugged in order for Him to maintain His inner wholeness.

It is so often the same for us. We want the feelings to go away so we can ultimately forgive. The converse is true. We have to forgive so that the feelings will ultimately go away.

One Time Is Good Enough

Satan’s only real strength is deception. He can hinder our spiritual growth by getting us to do wrong things or by keeping us from doing the right ones. Forgiving is one of the right ones.

Some folks are of the opinion that they did it once, and they’ll let us know when things change. Kind of like the husband who told his wife one time that he loved her. He said it on their wedding day and when things changed he’d let her know. Until then, what he said once is what stood. (An unfortunately true story.)

The reason this is faulty thinking with respect to giving forgiveness is because things have changed. We change. With every act of forgiveness we change. Multiple moments of forgiveness, even if the same words are said, are not exact actions. We are forgiving at a deeper level. I forgave my parents eight times during a four-year window. Each time was valid. Several times I said the same words, but none of them were repeats.

You’ll know when God is calling you to a deeper level and asking you to forgive again. I look for a tinge of emotion. That’s my “forgiveness thermometer.” When I think about someone and there is a tinge of resentment or anger, I have come to recognize that it is time to forgive again. Even if that person is God.

I identify these moments of emotion by paying close attention to my physical responses. Sometimes my jaw tightens. Sometimes my eyes glint which is cool if you’re Clint Eastwood, but his characters probably needed to forgive a few folks, too. Occasionally the response is even more subtle–I feel a slight shift in my chest. My face is sober, but my heart is twisting. These are my red flags. They are just as telling for me as if I flew into a panic-driven rage.

They are my signs that I have more work to do. I have released the offense in the past maybe even in the very recent past, but these signs are a call to a new level. There are stones in the garden and these blocks to growth need to be removed.

Melinda coined a phrase several years ago that has really helped bring clarity to many. She says that forgiving is giving up our right to punish the offenders. We let them go. And when they hurt us again . . . we let them go. We take our hands from around their neck, we let go of the noose, we lay down the gavel. We have to forgive until this process is complete.

I was recently approached by a young minister who asked, “Don’t you do forgiveness?”

“Well, I try to,” I replied with a smile.
He introduced himself and told me his story.

He was asking for his mother. They had been abandoned by his biological father and, as a teen, this young man had been wronged by the pastor’s son. His mother had issues around forgiveness and he wanted to know if I could recommend any materials. I recommended a few resources, but since she wasn’t in front of me and he was, I began to ask him about his own offense.

He mentioned that, years earlier, God arrested his attention in a dramatic way and took care of the offense. While he was praying at the altar, the visiting preacher grabbed a fistful of this young man’s shirt and tie. He looked into his eyes and emphatically stated, “You have offense and if you don’t repent, you are going to be lost!” Before this young man could respond, the preacher pointed to the side of that same altar where the pastor’s son was standing and added, “And you’re offended at him!”

Immediately the young man turned and fell at the feet of his peer and pastor’s son. The tears poured from his eyes and the requests for forgiveness flowed from his heart. There wasn’t an ounce of pride left in him. He wanted to be saved and was begging for forgiveness to make certain it could happen.

That was a definite God-moment. I rejoiced with him and then asked a question, “You were completely willing to ask for forgiveness from him, but how well have you forgiven him?”

For a brief moment, I got the deer-in-the-headlights look. A door had just been opened. This was a definite God-moment also and it was just as beautiful. This young minister’s spirit was wide open and he demonstrated the same humility of which he had spoken just moments earlier. We began to talk about the specific dynamics of granting forgiveness and he began to grow right in front of me. Near the end of our conversation this fine young man asked, “How do you know when you’ve forgiven? I don’t want to be around [the pastor’s son]. Does that mean that I haven’t forgiven him yet?”

I offered another of my forgiveness thermometers, “When you can enter a room where the person is and expend all of your energy making them feel comfortable and at ease . . . you’re getting really close.”

He looked up and revealed his honest heart, “I’m not there yet.” Most of us aren’t.

The Offender Has To Be Living

The main reason that people don’t have to be living for you to grant forgiveness is because it is not about them. As long as you’re breathing, the healing power of forgiveness can work. They don’t have to be living. They don’t have to ask. They don’t have to be sitting in front of you. It would probably be nice if their ears were able to hear when you release yourself from the offense, but it is certainly not a prerequisite. The prisoner you set free is you.

The Pain Will Immediately Go Away

Remember the kindergarten chant: “Rain, rain, go away. Please come back some other day”? In this case, the precipitation is in the form of pain. Unfortunately, neither the rain nor the pain goes away immediately following forgiveness. Folks sure seem to expect it to.

Consider this: I walk up to you and pop you in the mouth. I begin to apologize profusely and explain that occasionally my arm just flies out in random trajectories. I ask you to forgive me. You understand that my action wasn’t personal and you give me your forgiveness.

Here’s the question that dispels this myth: When you forgive me does your face stop hurting?

I know the answer because I have the same type of face that you have! The sting does not go away. It will soften, but not immediately. Part of the problem comes from our unrealistic expectations. We maintain a bit of the idealism that if I do right, then God will do right . . . and remove my pain. Let me wrap this up by saying that God will do right, but He probably won’t remove our pain. The apostle Paul prayed three times for his pain to be removed. Jesus will respond to our trial the way He responded to Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness” (II Corinthians 12:9 NKJV).

Take heart, friend . . . God is perfecting something in us and we are in pretty good company.

The Relationship Will Be Restored

It would be so wonderful if all of our damaged relationships would be restored following our extension of forgiveness. The reason they don’t is because we don’t have control over the offender. They can thumb their nose at our act of grace or refuse to speak to us ever again. They may choose not to forgive and there isn’t much we can do about it.

In cases like this, Melinda will ask you to get up from your seat and hug the lamp. Go ahead and do it now. Lay this book down and hug a lamp.

Did it hug you back? Why not?

Did you feel embarrassed? Why?

I know that the lamp did not hug you back and if you felt embarrassed, it was probably because someone saw you express an interactive action with an object that cannot interact. Lamps don’t hug back. They can’t. Sadly for some of us, we have relatives who just don’t hug back either. For whatever reason, they can’t.

Let me curb the frustrations of an unrealistic expectation by sharing this universal principle: You can only change yourself. No one else.

We only have control over our own actions and then we still need the Spirit of God to give us wisdom and direction to do what is best. If the once-broken relationship is restored, count yourself blessed. But try to remember their response is not in your power. Or God’s.


How do you feel about God getting the “core” out of your life? Write a prayer to God about your struggles with this.

Are you better at asking for forgiveness or giving forgiveness?

What will you begin to do to strengthen the weaker area?

This article “The Seven Myths of Forgiveness” by Andy Smith is excerpted from The Eleventh Commandment: Freedom Through Forgiveness, 2006.